March 1, 2010  

Mothership or battleship?

Competing visions of the Army’s Ground Combat Vehicle

I read with interest Maj. Gen. Robert Scales’ admirable effort (“A vehicle for modern times,” December/January) to help the Army work through its apparent confusion regarding the roles of and characteristics needed in its much-anticipated Ground Combat Vehicle (GVC). As one who participated in part of the Army’s outreach effort to define the requirements for the GCV, it was refreshing to have Scales use as his point of departure the needs of the soldiers in combat in the current war on terrorism. He sees today’s soldier in the field as overburdened, rendered relatively immobile by the extreme weight and lack of road maneuverability of current vehicles, including the Stryker and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle. He argues that what the soldier needs is a vehicle that can rapidly and safely delivery him to the tactical battle regardless of the terrain.

So far, so good. But Scales goes on to describe an entirely new paradigm for tactical engagements in the current and projected conflicts. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are not like conventional wars. Tactical units are operating in small, semi-independent units, often without adequate support, “more like a SWAT team than a traditional combined-arms assault force.” The keys to successful SWAT team operations are information, stealth, speed and maneuverability. Tactical units must be able to conduct an extremely broad range of operations, not just classic force-on-force engagements.

This novel view of tactical operations guides much of Scales’ thinking about the requirements for the GCV. He sees the new vehicle as one that not only transports personnel and their equipment around the battlefield but also as a central node on the tactical battlefield, supporting extended operations by small units. According to Scales, “Prolonged small-unit operations will also demand that the GCV have the ability to perform all the primal combat functions (fire, maneuver, intelligence, command and control and logistics) within a small clutch of vehicles.” As he puts it, the GCV is the “mothership” that moves, protects, supports and sustains the squad.

As I count the requirements Scales would impose on the GCV, they add up to quite an imposing list. It must carry a squad; be off-road mobile, highly maneuverable, quiet and fast; possess overwhelming discrete, intimate and sustained killing power; support a tactical network; be sensor-enabled; and have a large payload and fuel capacity for extended operations. Oh yes, it must be tracked to maneuver off-road quickly.

The only requirement Scales doesn’t include is that the GCV be heavily armored. Survivability would be achieved by not being where the improvised explosive devices are deployed and using information, speed and maneuver to outfox the adversary. But if the GCV is also going to serve as a mothership and a mobile base for extended operations, I would assume that it will require a lot of protection. If the GCV-equipped unit can achieve tactical surprise, then it may not require as much protection. But once it is stationary or its movements constrained, the GCV will require the same degree of passive protection as the current generation of vehicles.

The Israeli choice

In response to the experience in the 2006 war with Hezbollah, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) appears to be pursuing a similar concept. It has created the Namer armored personnel carrier based on the hull of the Merkava 4 main battle tank. Thus, the Namer has a high level of survivability, the cross-country mobility of a tracked vehicle and a speed of up to 60 kilometers per hour. It can carry an infantry squad with equipment and a crew of three. It is being deployed with wide range of weapons, including an active protection system, heavy machine guns, automatic mortar launchers and possibly even a 30mm cannon and guided missiles. There is even a special port for a sniper. The Namer has the new Battle Management System/Infantry that links to the dismounted “Integrated Advanced Soldier” system. Each one weighs around 50 tons, is 30 feet long and 12 feet wide and costs about $1.5 million.

The Namer is a high-end platform, almost a silver bullet, intended for use in special circumstances or for very high-intensity combat. It is likely to operate in task organized formations along with other vehicles, including Israeli versions of the Stryker and MRAP.

The U.S. Army appears to have a similar vision for the GCV. The Army says the GCV will be a replacement for the Bradley fighting vehicle in the heavy brigade combat teams (HBCTs). That is still a lot of vehicles, approximately 6,600. This vision also means that the GCV will have to be able to engage in high-intensity conventional combined-arms warfare. But the GCV must also address perceived deficits in currently available vehicles operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, the IDF has an advantage over the U.S. Army; it only needs to project ground power short distances.

Scales’ concept suggests a different approach to managing the military’s combat vehicle fleet. In his approach, the GCV would certainly supplement, even replace, Strykers and the MRAP All-Terrain Vehicles (M-ATVs) in the Infantry Brigade Combat Teams (IBCTs). Replacing the Bradleys in the HBCTs with the GCV would not address Scales’ vision of how infantry squads need to operate. The GCVs would not be available to the infantry for exercise and training. But making the GCV a central force in the IBCTs means acquiring lots of these large, heavy and expensive vehicles in order to enable the SWAT team tactical concept and the mothership mission for the GCV.

It should be clear that neither vision of the GCV argues for replacing the Bradley. It would seem to make more sense for the Army to upgrade the Bradley.

As the discussion with the Manchu warriors reprised by Scales demonstrates, almost any vehicle can be a mothership if it has certain characteristics. What Scales is proposing as his vision of the GCV seems more like a battleship than a mothership. It is a combination transport, mobile blockhouse, fire base, communications and intelligence center and logistics hub. But most of these functions can be provided by other vehicles, if properly prepared and supported. The essential role for the GCV, it seems, is that of rapid closure with hostile forces, under fire if necessary, across complex terrain, with the ability to provide direct fire support to dismounted infantry. Sort of an assault gun plus infantry carrier — in other words, a land battleship. AFJ

Daniel Goure is vice president at The Lexington Institute in Washington D.C.